In high school, I wore sneakers every day. They were soft, comfy, and easy to put on. Just jam your foot in, and after a few clumsy steps, the rest of the sneaker would follow. Or not. Tying the laces was optional, but on dressier occasions, I usually made the effort. Some kids didn’t even have laces on sneakers, preferring velcro straps instead. I loved the idea, and surely would’ve tried them if the early adopters hadn’t been teased so mercilessly.
When I got to college, I noticed other kids my age wearing shoes. Had they just returned from a Bar Mitzvah? Why would a person voluntarily wear a stiff and uncomfortable shoe? You couldn’t run in them, or kick a ball, or even jump in a puddle. True, I had only one memory of ever jumping in a puddle. When I was little, my mother and I were crossing a parking lot on a rainy day when she spotted a small pool of water and said, “Go ahead, jump in it.” The initial splash was fun, but I spent an uncomfortable ride home with my pants soaked in dirty water, as grit caked onto my legs. After that, whenever my mother allowed me to test freedom, I always gave it a second thought. That’s shrewd parenting.
Even if I wasn’t planning on jumping in any more puddles, the idea of a kid wearing shoes seemed pretty radical to me unless…. unless I was an adult now. Could that possibly be? I was doing my own laundry, combing my own hair, tucking myself in…Maybe I was a grown up after all. I decided to make a big boy decision and give shoes a try.
At first I was horribly self-conscious. Did I look sophisticated or stupid? Maybe I shouldn’t wear them with torn jeans. Deep in my closet, I found some some khakis that still had the tags on them, tried them on, and stood in front of a mirror. I looked better, but I wasn’t certain I liked “better me.” He seemed full of himself. Punchable. I put my sneakers back on and returned to looking like a ten year old on his way to kickball practice. But then again, maybe this shoe thing didn’t have to be permanent. It could be an experiment, no different than researching a cure for cancer.
“Just wear the shoes!” I finally yelled at myself. I exited my dorm room and stepped cautiously, like an ice skater testing a frozen pond.
As I walked down the corridor to my Contemporary English class, I was struck by the sound my shoes made on the marble floors. Unlike sneakers which were designed to be silent and “sneaky,” the leather soles of my shoes made a satisfying tap, tappity, tap. It was like they were heralding my presence, and I appreciated the fanfare. Going upstairs, the sound changed into more of“shusshing” sound. Shh. Shh. Shh. Were my shoes trying to quiet everyone down so I could say something important? No wonder people wore shoes. They were so dramatic!
One day, my friend Todd asked me to go with him to the Quakerbridge Mall to get his hair cut. Seeing this as an opportunity to test my shoes in a non-campus setting, I jumped at the chance. But not too high of a jump, that’s what sneakers were for. Todd was a year older than me, and more experienced in every way. I don’t know if I’d call him a ladies man, but he was consistently getting phone numbers from women, having sex with them, then agonizing over how to ditch them. He must’ve been the kid who loved jumping into puddles.
Despite the fact that the Quakerbridge Mall was something of a drive, Todd liked it better than the salons and barber shops within walking distance of campus. The locals, he rightly assumed, weren’t impressed by the fact that he went to Princeton, and that was his main selling point. Once, while at a nearby pizzeria, I watched as Todd dropped his Princeton credentials to the poor, uneducated clerk behind the counter. She responded with an eye roll. “I go to Princeton too, jackass.”
But the Quakerbridge Mall was far enough away where this wouldn’t be a problem. In Todd’s mind, these stylists considered us to be exotic orchids that they’d admire, collect, and eventually deflower. When we arrived, he proudly took a chair in front of a three angled mirror, so he could admire himself from every direction. I waited nearby reading People Magazine.
“Put that fucking thing down!” he whispered. He tossed me a book written by Friedrich Nietzsche that neither of us would ever read, yet somehow more accurately represented who we were. I watched with admiration as Todd brazenly flirted with his young hairstylist. He was laying it on thicker than her eyeshadow, but she seemed to like it. Funny enough, I never considered Todd to be particularly good looking. As a rugby player, his nose had been broken at least once, but it wasn’t his nose that he was awkwardly trying to wedge into every conversation. It was his Ivy League pedigree.
“Take the sides up a little,” he said. “We have a quest speaker in tomorrow’s sociology class, and I want to look my best.”
“Oh, do you go to Trenton State?”
“Princeton,” Todd gently corrected.
“Princeton High School?” Jesus, this was a disaster.
“University,” he said pointedly. At this point, I was sweating for him, but he didn’t seem fazed. Part of me wished I could be as self-assured as Todd was, but the other part worried what people might think of me if I tried. If only I could get the entire world to sign off on my personality before taking it public.
Despite the rocky start, Todd managed to get the stylist’s phone number, which he later showed off to me. I suspected it was for future haircuts as it was written on a business card, but still I was impressed. What if he had asked for her number and she had said no? Think of the consequences. People might laugh, or mock, or even worse, whisper. There was no telling what someone might say in a whisper. It could be positive or negative, and because of that, you were certain to drive yourself crazy guessing. Even worse than a whisper was a thought… which was basically a whisper people tell themselves.
On the way back to the car, Todd suggested we pass through the department store, where a beautiful woman in her late-twenties was dousing cologne on men. Considering her looks, I was surprised there wasn’t a line. Todd saw her as the perfect candidate to hit on, because her job required her to be verbally responsive to people like us. It was almost mean of him, I thought, to keep her hostage like that. But then again, she was the one trying to sell us something.
“That’s a delightful scent,” he said to the saleswoman, and I watched with trepidation.
Delightful. I didn’t use words like that. Did I have to? I was just getting used to these shoes, so my plate was already pretty full.
“But just a small spray,” he continued. “My Princeton seminar on the Fundamentals of Neuroscience is in a tight room, and I don’t want to overwhelm the other Princeton students.”
Wow. Wasn’t one mention enough? That was like spiking a football, picking it up, and spiking it again. But maybe it worked, because the saleswoman wasn’t laughing the way I was. After a few minutes, Todd decided he was ready to go back to campus, but he never asked for her phone number. I wondered if that was part of his plan. Was she supposed to beg him for it? Would she follow us home in her car? I was preparing to ask him about this when she called off to me.
“Do you want to try some too?”
I was surprised she even noticed me. Up until then I had been laying back, like a shadow. But a hot woman was talking to me and there was no way I could decline. Besides, cologne might be just what the new, adult me needed.
She squirted two large clouds and instructed me to walk through them, which I did like a stripper bursting through a curtain of beads. “Hello, boys. You can call me Tanqueray.” After two passes through her atomized cloud, I remarked, “I don’t smell anything.”
She winced. “It’s a sophisticated blend for discerning gentlemen.”
I stared at her blankly. Perhaps she hadn’t noticed my leather wingtips.
“That means you’re not ready for it,” she explained.
“That means I’m not ready for it?”
“Not quite yet. Maybe one day.”
Back in the car, I was pissed off. “Who does she think she is?!”
“Go back and yell at her for being condescending. Use big words then explain what they mean,” said Todd.
“Maybe the problem is her shitty perfume smells like New Jersey tap water.”
“Smelled good to me,” said Todd laughing. I tried to get him to admit he couldn’t smell it either, but Todd was a good friend, so he wouldn’t give me the satisfaction. As pissed as I was, this whole exchange seemed to reinforce my attitude towards women. While Todd was looking for quantity, I was looking for quality. A meaningful relationship based on truth and intimacy. That’s what separated me from Todd. I was deep. So very deep.
A few months later, I was attending a concert by the university orchestra, although I don’t remember why. Given that it was an adult thing to do, maybe my shoes brought me there against my will. Me, Todd, my shoes, and my new friend the sweater watched from the balcony as Beethoven bounced off the stately walls of Richardson Auditorium. I’m not sure if it was Beethoven, but I knew nothing about classical music, and that was as good a guess as any. From the balcony, one musician stood out to me. She was beautiful, lightly drawing the bow as her knees caressed the curvature of her big violin.
“It’s called a cello,” said Todd.
“I know what it’s called, Todd. I’m not an idiot.”
As she played, she swayed to the music with her eyes closed, as if she were the only one who could truly hear it. It was noticeable even from far away, and I wondered if she worried people might judge her. Opening yourself up to other people’s opinions felt like an unnecessary risk. It was almost irresponsible. I was in awe of her confidence. This was exactly the kind of girl I needed to meet, but only in the most casual of settings. Certainly not as a pick-up. In a perfect world, she’d be assigned the seat next to me on a crashing airplane. As the plane went down, she’d instinctively grab my hand, we’d make out, and live happily ever after until impact.
But did I really want to hold out hope for a doomsday scenario? I felt that even I could do better than that. I considered approaching her after the concert, but what would I say? Waiting a few days to hunt her down seemed like a much wiser decision. It involved procrastination, which appealingly made the chances of finding her more remote. It’s like what the British royals did when they went fox hunting. If they gave the fox a big enough head start, they’d have the perfect excuse when they came home empty-handed. “Jolly good show of it, we’ll get her next time, pip pip.”
All I knew about my new crush was that she played a big violin in the orchestra. But thanks to the program they handed out — the purpose of which I thought was to fan myself — I was able to narrow her down to one of three choices. Marisa was her most likely name, mainly because that’s the one I found most attractive. I imagined bringing Marisa to fancy cocktail parties. “Have you met my girlfriend? Her name’s Marisa, but we can’t stay long because it’s our three and a half month anniversary and I’ve made reservations. What’s that, you say? Why, P.F. Changs, of course.”
Asking friends if they knew her seemed out of the question. What if they found out I was interested in her? No, that would make me vulnerable to judgment and ridicule. So I spent the next few weeks criss-crossing the campus, constantly on the lookout for a brown haired girl wheeling a cello case. As much as you’d think a person like that would stand out, I never saw her. How could that be? Did she have two cellos, keeping one in her dorm, and another at her rehearsal space? Or maybe she travelled only at night. That would certainly make her more mysterious, which I found appealing. Or maybe she had a boyfriend who shuttled her cello for her. As unlikely as that scenario was, it filled me with jealousy.
Then one day, while on line at the lunch counter, I overheard a friend talking to another girl about orchestra rehearsal. I couldn’t be sure if she was the cellist I was seeking, but given how cute she was, I wanted her to be. She had brown silky hair, and skin that could barely contain her love for me. I wanted to start our relationship off on the right foot, so I stalked her.
I hid behind the sneeze guard at the salad bar, which evidently, was doing it’s job well. At least the mini-corns had been spared. They always looked so delightful, but never failed to disappoint with their soggy blandness. What if Marisa was like the mini-corn I was grasping at with tongs? Good from far, but far from good. I added four to my plate anyway. Then put three back.
The girls were talking about their chemistry homework when I finally heard my friend address her by name. Marisa.
“Wait,” I interrupted without even thinking. “You play Big Violin in the orchestra!”
“Yes!” she smiled, with a sparkle in her eyes that can be found only in accomplished cellists. It takes years of practice and sacrifice to have that sparkle in your eyes. Experienced violinists might come close, but it’s not the same. You have to be a cellist. I guess you could say I was smitten.
We talked for quite awhile, and I kept wondering when she’d suddenly walk away. I considered positioning myself between her and the table where our mutual friend was waiting, just to make her escape harder. But after a few minutes, it didn’t seem necessary. I got the feeling that Marisa was actually enjoying my company. Did she mistakenly think I was the interesting one?
Todd had a rule of always being the first to walk away from a conversation when you meet a new girl, to keep her off balance. I didn’t want to do that, especially to Marisa. But in the background, I could see our mutual friend waiting impatiently so I suggested we meet again for dinner on Friday night.
“It’s a deal,” she said, and I was so surprised, I almost asked if I could get it in writing. And then notarized. As she walked away, I looked at my feet. “It’s the shoes,” I thought, sounding like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. “The power was always in my shoes.”
Friday evening couldn’t drag its fat, lazy ass to me soon enough. And when it finally did, I found Marisa right where she said she’d be. As she approached, we raced to see who’d smile first, and I think it was a tie. We sat down and amazingly, whatever awkwardness there was from our first encounter had been left at the salad bar, along with a pile of baby corns. Talking with her was easy, and I caught my mind wandering only once, and that was to pity Todd for not being me. All his rules and posturing were just bullshit. Here I was, a novice, and I was on my way to something meaningful, simply because I had the courage to be myself. If there were a Hall of Fame for people reaching maturity exceptionally fast, I surely would’ve been inducted. Of course, I’d graciously thank Todd in my acceptance speech, but no one would think I was sincere.
As we walked to the nearby party, I couldn’t believe my good fortune as Marisa held my hand. It was the same exact hand that only a few weeks earlier had pulled life into a cello with a bow. Or was it the hand that pressed the strings along the neck? I didn’t bother to ask, but it had to be one or the other. If she had three hands, I probably would’ve noticed, right?
As we opened the door to the party, we were slammed by a wall of deafening music and stale beer vapor. Raucous adolescents chugged beer from a funnel to prove that ordinary drinking wasn’t fast enough for their throats. I made sure to cheer loudly when we entered because being with Marisa wasn’t enough. I wanted others to know that I was with her.
By the window, we found room to dance, and we yelled at each other to be heard. Screaming at her on a first date didn’t feel right to me, but in college this sort of thing was done all the time. I didn’t enjoy it, but I also didn’t question it. I had heard that college was a place where kids were encouraged to think for their own, but at the time, I thought that only applied to academics. It’s a shame no one put that in the supplemental reading.
Reflected in the glass of the window, I spotted Marisa’s face. She was so pretty, and I thought that if I had to choose between kissing the real Marisa and the one in the window, I’d go for the reflection because it felt less intimidating. Kissing a glass windowpane would’ve been weird even for me, so I didn’t seriously entertain it. But that’s where my head was at when a drunken partygoer passed by and spilled beer on her.
“Ugh,” she remarked. “I’m going to push that guy down a flight of stairs.”
I laughed, then she added. “Just kidding.”
That part struck me as odd, and I couldn’t stop deconstructing it as I searched for a napkin to dry her off. Why did she say “just kidding?” I had laughed at her comment, so we both knew it was a joke. But even if I hadn’t, wouldn’t it be obvious that she was “just kidding.” Was there any expectation that she would actually push him down a flight of stairs? When I returned, I changed the subject to something more straightforward— her musical talent.
“So when’s your next concert?”
“Don’t ask. I’m so tired of rehearsing, I’m thinking of joining the crew team and using my cello as an oar. Just kidding.”
Okay, stop. Stop right there. What’s with the “just kidding?” Her cello must’ve cost a fortune. Obviously she’d never use it as an oar. Ever. If you asked ten people, eleven of them would know she was just kidding. So why the disclaimer? Did she think I was incapable of understanding sarcasm? Was she afraid I might leap into the water to keep her from making a terrible mistake? From the balcony, Marisa had been perfect, but up close… dammit, she was human. I could sense my mind spinning out of control, which it often did. If I have a problem, don’t help me, because no matter what side you take, I’ll take the opposite. I’ll turn it into a no-win situation, because winning isn’t the goal. It’s about creating doubt, then blaming you for agreeing with me. I leaned over to kiss her, which was very much out of character. The fact that I wasn’t worried about being rejected wasn’t a good omen. It meant I didn’t care.
In the coming weeks, her insecure habit kept popping up, and when it did, it freaked me out. It’s like when someone points out that you’re breathing. You become conscious of it, then suddenly breathing doesn’t come involuntarily. You have to remind yourself to breath, and if you don’t, you worry you might keel over and die. That’s what “just kidding” became to me. A death sentence.
I tried to ignore it because there was so much to like about Marisa. She was kind and genuine, not to mention very talented. But why did she have to say “just kidding.” Was I joking so much that she felt the need to keep up, adding “just kidding” to ensure her entry would be counted? As a test, I decided not to say anything that could be construed as a joke. “Boy, you’re a real downer today,” she said, and I shrugged, relieved that maybe the spell had been broken. But before I could change the subject, she quickly added, “just kidding.”
I didn’t know what to do. I had jumped into a puddle and now my legs were wet and dirty. Why couldn’t I just tolerate the discomfort? Happy couples ignore stuff all the time. Once, I saw an episode of Jerry Springer where the wife said her husband was a violent racist, but they loved each other anyway. Shouldn’t I aspire to be more like them? Why was I bothered by something so inconsequential? I’m not proud of this, but to my close friends, I started calling her “Marisa Disclaimer.”
After three weeks of dating her, I decided that our relationship had room for only one overly flawed person, and unfortunately, I was here first. But I was mature about it. I met her after sociology class, took her hand and gently said there was something we needed to talk about. I told her she had a nervous habit that she probably wasn’t aware of. I needed to point it out, not to hurt her feelings, but so that we could both move forward and grow closer together.
Just kidding, I did no such thing.
I simply hid from her. The woman selling cologne at the department store had been right about me all along. I wasn’t ready for it.